As It Happens

Americans stage 'caravan to Canada' to buy cheaper insulin

Last weekend, Lija Greenseid of Minnesota joined five other Americans on a 10-hour round trip to Ontario to purchase insulin and other medications. They chronicled their journey on social media under the hashtag #Insulin4all, to bring attention to the soaring cost of pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

'It's about 1/10th the cost' in Canada, says caravan member of the insulin her daughter requires

At the end of April 2019, group of Americans travelled to Canada to buy insulin, because the price of the diabetes medication is so much cheaper north of the border. They called it the Caravan to Canada, and launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #Insulin4all. (Submitted by Lija Greenseid)

Last weekend, a group of Americans embarked on road trip to Canada — but not to take in the sights of northwestern Ontario. They came to buy insulin.

It was worth the long journey, because the price of the diabetes medication they need is so much cheaper north of the border.

The group called themselves the Caravan to Canada. Lija Greenseid, one of the participants, came to buy a type of insulin for her daughter that's not covered by her U.S. health insurance.

She spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about the trip. Here is part of their conversation.

How far did you travel to buy this insulin in Canada?

We drove about 300 miles each way, for 10 hours total for our trip. 

So was it worth it, this so-called Caravan to Canada?

Absolutely it was. So, first of all I got to buy some insulin that I otherwise can't buy here in the United States with my insurance. So that's really helpful to me and to my daughter with Type 1 diabetes. And also, I think it's working because we're raising a lot of attention to the problem of the high insulin prices here in the United States.

How many people went with you?

They were a total of six of us — either people with diabetes, or people like myself who have children or others with diabetes.

Lija Greenseid holds up the insulin medications she purchased on her trip to Ontario as a member of the #Insulin4all Caravan to Canada. (Submitted by Lija Greenseid.)

Just give us some ideas of how much cheaper it is to buy the insulin in Canada than it is in the United States.

It's about one-tenth the cost. So a vial of NovoRapid in Canada costs about $30 US, and in the United States that same vial — It's called NovoLog — costs about $300.

One of my friends, Quinn — she is paying about $600 a month for insulin. And she was able to bring back with her a three-month supply and saved about $3,000 for her insulin.

There are a couple others that were like that as well, who bought ... many months of supply for themselves to use.

I personally bought a type of insulin that our insurance won't cover here in the United States. It's a backup type of insulin that we'd use if my daughter's insulin pump were to fail. And I'm very grateful to be able to buy exactly the right type that I want to be able to have for her, that we've always used in the past — instead of the new type that our insurance is now only going to cover.

Greenseid (far right) with other members of the #Insulin4all Caravan to Canada. (Submitted by Lija Greenseid.)

So, in your case, hundreds of dollars. In the cases of some of the other people, thousands of dollars — for very short periods of time of the insulin supply. Is that typical of what people are facing in the United States?

It is typical. There are many of us who are insured, and have what we call a high-deductible health insurance plan. So we pay for the first $7,000 of my daughter's health needs each year.

And that's becoming more and more the case that the costs — upfront costs — are being passed off to American patients. So last year, my family paid $27,000 for our health-care insurance premiums, and for medications and hospitalizations and everything else for my family.

And the issue with insulin, though, is that it's getting more expensive to buy. Why is that in the United States? 

Well, all health-care costs keep going up in the United States. And really, frankly, the reason why is because we don't have a government way of regulating or putting any price caps on prescription drugs, so the price continues to increase.

The type of insulin that my daughter uses — there are only two manufacturers worldwide of a similar type. And they continue to increase their prices lockstep together. This has been going on for many years now, and I think we're finally at the breaking point where the cost is just too high for too many people.

And there have been reports in the U.S. Congress about this — that the price of insulin is so high, that people are rationing their insulin due to that. And that this is across the United States, then?

That's correct. There's been some research recently that about one in four people with diabetes are rationing their insulin in the United States. And as we know, if people with diabetes don't have enough insulin, their blood sugar will be high — and that can result in some terrible long term complications, such as blindness and amputation and kidney disease. In the short term, if someone with Type 1 diabetes doesn't have enough insulin, they can die.

Greenseid (far left) with other members of the #Insulin4all Caravan to Canada. (Submitted by Lija Greenseid.)

And there's a very sad story here in Minnesota of a young man, Alex Smith, who lost his mother's insurance when he turned 26 years old, and rationed his insulin and died within a month of losing insurance. He had gone to a pharmacy to fill his prescription and it was going to be $1,300. He only had $1,000 in his bank account, and tried to use insulin sparingly to get through to payday. But he didn't make it.

Oh, that's tragic. Insurance companies in the U.S. have acknowledged that insulin prices are out of control. Are they doing anything to try to rein them in?

There's been more efforts recently, as there's been increased pressure from patients. But there are many people who still are paying too much. And without a broader coordinated effort, I fear that there will always be some who slip through the cracks and aren't able to get the insulin that they need.

Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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